In the days following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, restaurants across the United States reported an increase in the sale of hamburgers and pasta. Pizza appeared on the bar menus of restaurants in lower Manhattan that had never offered it before. Soup sales shot up at some restaurants. London Grill, a fine dining restaurant in Philadelphia, reported an increase of between 25 and 30 percent in sales of hamburgers, chili, fish and chips, and chocolate pudding. The Tribeca Grand, a tony hotel near the rubble that once was the World Trade Center, was accustomed to catering to the fashion and film industries. Suddenly it found itself serving Salisbury steak and grilled cheese sandwiches. The menu items that saw increased popularity after 9/11 are by definition “comfort food.”
In the wake of those attacks, the New York Health and Racket Club launched a membership promotion with the phrase: “Think less, feel better.” That is what comfort food does. Often defined as food that reminds people of childhood or home, it can be anything that takes its eaters to a safe emotional place, that allows them simply to turn off their brain and chew. In modern film, the notion of comfort food was illustrated in the 2007 Disney movie Ratatouille, in which the curmudgeonly critic took a bite of the title food and was transported to happy memories of childhood, elevating his mood and inspiring him to give the restaurant a stellar review.
The origins of the term are unclear, but references to it go back at least to the late 1950s, although its definition has changed over the years. In How the Doctors Diet (1968), authors Peter Wyden and Barbara Wyden define comfort food as being “upfilling and not too sinful.” But in the 1975 book Clear and Simple Crockery Cookery, Jacqueline Heriteau writes: “You can tell a comfort food right away because it always has a lot of calories and you always feel guilty as you prepare it.” Many common American comfort foods are, indeed, high in carbohydrates, fat, or both, and there is clinical evidence that food high in sugar and fat—but especially sugar—ease stress and elevate mood.
Some studies have indicated that consuming sugar triggers a dopamine-release response similar to having sex or using heroin and other opiates. Others indicate that consumption of food high in sugar, fat, or both can reduce activity in the brain’s chronic stress-response network and thus reduce anxiety. Additionally, consumption of any high-carbohydrate food triggers production of insulin, which in turn allows the passage of glucose and other nutrients from the bloodstream into cells. This clears pathways in the blood that speed the transport of the amino acid tryptophan to the brain where it is used to make the mood-moderating hormone serotonin.
But human behavior indicates that comfort food has psychological as well as physiological roots. Some restaurants in the aftermath of 9/11 reported an increase in the consumption of expensive foods such as steak, lobster, and caviar, as well as pricier wines, possibly indicating that economic immoderation is a sort of comfort eating for some, just as caloric immoderation is for others. Other restaurateurs simply said that “recognizable food” was popular during that stressful time. Iconic comfort foods in the United States include meat loaf—usually with mashed potatoes—macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, hamburgers, and french fries.
In the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008, restaurants across the country responded to consumer demand with promotions of those foods. As the economic malaise deepened, other comfort foods emerged, such as meatballs, hot dogs and other sausages, grilled cheese sandwiches, and red velvet cake.
A recent study conducted for the Florida Department of Citrus, in which consumers participated in in-depth interviews about their feelings about orange juice, found that the beverage evoked feelings in many participants of happier times, often associated with childhood, indicating that it qualifies as a comfort food, too.
Comfort food can be highly individualistic and vary by region, generation, and even gender. A 2003 study by Cornell University professors Brian Wansink, Matthew Cheney, and Nina Chan indicated that men tend to like hot meal–oriented comfort food, such as soup, pasta, or pizza, whereas women tend to reach for cookies and chocolate. Ice cream is a favorite of both genders, according to the study.
Regionally, New Englanders might point to clam chowder as a comfort food, whereas southerners would be more inclined toward shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, or the particular type of barbecue common in their part of the South. Someone from southern Thailand would likely eat a pungent hot-and-sour curry served with rice, raw vegetables and herbs, and a deep-fried omelet.
Restaurants in the United States specializing in French food said that in the aftermath of 9/11, customers ordered more braised dishes and the southwestern French bean stew cassoulet. Italian American restaurants at the time reported an increase in orders of lasagna and sausage with peppers.
Although people tend to turn to comfort food in times of stress, some studies indicate that when that stress is brought about by changing or tumultuous times, people are less inclined to eat familiar food and more likely to experiment. This might be due to the fact that in unfamiliar situations, the environmental cues that would promote habitual behavior are fewer or absent.
The post-2008 restaurant world in the United States has seen that response as well, with an increasing willingness of customers to experiment with new ingredients and flavor combinations, as long as those items have an air of authenticity. That authenticity can come either from the use of local or natural ingredients or from indications that the dish is traditional—served as it would be in a specific region or by a certain ethnic group. Perhaps those requirements are indications that while consumers are interested in trying new food, they are seeking the comfort food of other cultures.
Dallman, Mary F., et al. “Chronic Stress and Obesity: A New View of ‘Comfort Food.’ ” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100, no. 20 (2003): 11696–11701.
Thorn, Bret. “Seeking Comfort, Diners Indulge in Feel-Good Fare.” Nation’s Restaurant News, October 15, 2001.
Wood, Stacy. “The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change.” Journal of Consumer Research 36, no. 6 (2010): 950–963.
© Oxford University Press, 2013